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What Is Northern Pass? Northern Pass is a proposal to run 192 miles of new power lines from Canada, through northern New Hampshire, south to Concord, and then eastward to Deerfield. The project is a collaboration between Eversource (previously known as Public Service of New Hampshire) and Hydro-Quebec, which is owned by the provincial government of Quebec. The utilities say the $1.6 billion Northern Pass project would transport 1,090 megawatts of electricity from Quebec – which derives more than 90 percent of its power from hydroelectric dams – to the New England power grid.The ControversyNorthern Pass has proved an incredibly controversial issue in New Hampshire, especially in the North CountryThe project has generated considerable controversy from the beginning. Despite its statewide impacts, many of the projects most dedicated opponents come from the sparsely-populated and heavily forested North Country.Eversource says the new lines would bring jobs and tax revenue to this struggling part of the state. But opponents of the project say it would mean only temporary jobs for residents when it's under construction. They also say it will deface New Hampshire's forestland, hurting tourism and lowering property values. Depending on the location, developers say the project's towers will range from 85 to 135 feet tall.Polls have consistently found the public remains sharply divided on this issue.Some critics have pushed for the entire project to be buried. Politicians ranging from Sen. Maggie Hassan to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich have floated this move as having the potential to soften opposition. Eversource maintains this would be too expensive, and would effectively make the project impossible to pursue. The Route: Real Estate Chess Plays Out In The North Country Northern Pass and its opponents have been fighting over control of land along potential routesNorthern Pass has considered a number of routes for the project, but has publicly announced three. The first, unveiled in 2011, faced major backlash from North Country residents and environmental groups. Over the next couple of years, the project and its primary opponent the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests played a prolonged chess match over parcels of North Country land. Northern Pass ultimately spent more than $40 million purchasing acres of undeveloped land in the North Country. Meanwhile, the Forest Society undertook an aggressive fundraising campaign and sought a slew of conservation easements to block potential routes.This maneuvering narrowed the options for Northern Pass. One lingering possibility was exercising eminent domain. Northern Pass publicly stated it was not interested in pursuing eminent domain. But in 2012, in response to strong statewide opposition, the Legislature closed the option altogether, outlawing the practice except in cases where a new transmission line was needed to maintain the reliability of the electric system.By the spring of 2013, Northern Pass opponents believed the project was essentially "cornered" into trying to route the power line through a large conservation easement, called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters. The governor at that time, Democrat Maggie Hassan, said she opposed such a move on the part of Northern Pass.Second Time Around: Northern Pass Announces Alternative RouteIn June of 2013, Northern Pass unveiled its second proposed route. Abandoning its previous strategy (and $40 million in land purchases) altogether, the project proposed building along existing state and local North Country roadways in Clarksville and Stewartstown. In a nod to project opponents, Northern Pass also said it will bury 7.5 miles of line in Stewartstown, Clarksville, and under the Connecticut River. That raised the price tag on the project from $1.2 billion as initially proposed to about $1.4 billion. While opponents said this move was progress, many – including the Forest Society – maintained that Northern Pass should be able to bury all 180 miles of power lines.Final Route: Burial through the White Mountains0000017a-15d9-d736-a57f-17ff8a620000 After years of continued opposition, Northern Pass made its final concession to critics. It downsized the powerline from an initial proposal of 1,200 megawatts to 1,090 to take advantage of a new technology, known as HVDC lite. This move made it more economical to bury portions of the line, and Eversource said it was now willing to bury 52 additional miles of the project. The new route would be alongside state roadways as the project passed through the White Mountain National Forest.While the governor called the change “an important improvement,” she also said “further improvements” to the project should be made. The partial burial did not placate the project’s fiercest opponents, but some speculated that it would help the project clear one significant hurdle: whether it would get approval to use public lands from the top official at the White Mountain National Forest. The move pushed the estimated price tag up again, to $1.6 billion, now for a project that would deliver less power.With its new route in hand, project officials filed to build the project in October of 2015.Before the Site Evaluation CommitteeThe application to state officials was likely the longest and most complicated in the state’s history, and 161 individuals, interest groups, and municipalities asked to be allowed to participate in the process to evaluate the merits of the project.Given the size and complexity of the project, many of the interveners pushed for a longer review than the standard one year that state law dictates. In May of 2016, those groups got their wish, and the decision was pushed back 9 months. The final deadline was set for September of 2017. However, once the proceeding got under way, it was clear that even this delay would not allow time to hear from all of the witnesses called by the various interveners. Early in September of 2017 it was delayed again, with a final decision set for February 2018.DeniedOn February 1st, 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee voted unanimously to deny the permit for Northern Pass, a decision that triggered an appeals process that was taken up by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in late 2018.In May of 2019, the court heard orgal arguments on the appeal.On July 19, 2019, the court issued its ruling. In a unanimous decision, the SEC's rejection of the project was upheld, likely marking the end of Northern Pass as it was proposed.

Final Hearings On Northern Pass Are Finally On

Josh Rogers for NHPR

Northern Pass interveners and opponents, Eversource staff, and lawyers - many lawyers - gathered in a big, rented room with custard-colored walls. And that’s where they will be every day until these hearings end, weeks from now.

Marty Honigberg, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission acknowledged the sprawl of this case at the hearings’ start.

“Normally at these things the chair reads from a memorandum that summarizes all that’s happened to get us to the point where we are at the beginning of the adjudicative hearings. We will not be reading that from that because it will take us all day – and everyone knows why we are here.”

The first witness at this hearing was a crucial one, Eversource’s New Hampshire President William Quinlan. For Quinlan, this day was divisible into two distinct parts. It opened with questions from two friendly interveners, the City of Berlin, and the electricians union. Both hope to benefit from Northern Pass’s promise of jobs, and that showed in the questioning.

"For the record, I’m Alan Raff representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Thanks for coming Mr. Quinlan. Just some questions on jobs from the start. In your pre-file testimony dated October 16, 2015, you states that the project would create thousands of jobs. Is that correct?"

"Yes. That’s correct, yes. Approximately 2600 is our estimate," Quinlan responded.

"Thank you."

When it was Public counsel Tom Pappas’s turn with Quinlan, the tone was less friendly. Pappas challenged Quinlan in areas ranging from line burial.

Credit Josh Rogers for NHPR
The final hearings on Northern Pass have begun in Concord

"It is technologically feasible to construct the entire route underground? Is that right?"

"Yes that is correct."

Pappas also pressed Quinlan on Northern Pass’s timing in spreading money around the North Country – some in the form of donations, but also in the case of the Balsams resort, which backs the project, a loan.

"And are you aware that five days later, after the Balsams petitioned to intervene in this proceeding, February 10th, 2016, is when Eversource wired the two million dollars to the Balsams?"

"No. I’m not aware of date of the wiring."

How any of this may factor into the ruling of the site evaluation committee isn’t knowable. The committee’s job is to make sure Northern Pass has the capacity – financial and technical – to pull off the project. The committee is also charged with making sure projects don’t interfere with regional development or have “an unreasonable adverse affect” on aesthetics, historic sites, the natural environment and public health and safety.

These standards have been tweaked during the the years Northern Pass has been under debate. The economy and energy market have changed too; when the project was proposed during the pit of the recession the promise of jobs was probably more potent than it is today. But during the same time period, more power plants have gone offline, which to backers of the project underscore its need.

Yet competing projects to import Candadian hydro-power into New England have also emerged.

Jack Savage of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, a group that’s helped lead the fight against Northern Pass, says the battle over this project may seem entrenched, but this SEC hearing, regardless of final outcome, gives all sides an opportunity they’ve yet to have.

"We have finally come to a point where witnesses like Mr. Quinlan are under oath, and the interveners, where you are for the project or against the project, are like the counsel for the public. Trying to understand the truth behind the project, you can not only get an answer under oath, you can get a follow up question. And that’s an important part of it for the seven SEC members who have to ultimately make a decision."

That decision is a long ways off. First it will be weeks more testimony.


Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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